Authors: Shyam Selvadurai
Story-Wallah! A Celebration of South Asian Fiction
FICTION FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
COPYRIGHT © 2013 SHYAM SELVADURAI
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.
Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Selvadurai, Shyam, 1965-
The hungry ghosts / Shyam Selvadurai.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design: Jennifer Lum
Cover images: (house) Robert Harding/Robert Harding
World Imagery/Getty Images; (gate) © Moth/Dreamstime.com; (vine of desire) Andrew Champion
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited
who is, to me, “like rain soaking a parched land.”
“Destiny is fixed; all doors open onto the future.”
N THE DAY
, my grandmother, with whom my mother, my sister and I lived by then, invited me to go for a drive after school. I came into the living room after changing out of my uniform, to find my grandmother standing by the grand piano, frowning with impatience, as our ayah, Rosalind, knelt before her and dabbed prickly-heat powder in the crooks of her mistress’s arms, careful not to leave white marks. When my grandmother saw me, a sparkle of anticipation lit her eyes. Then her frown deepened to mask this delight.
As we got into the old Bentley, I felt my own anticipation, which had been building through the school day, reach a new peak. Her silence about my present made me certain that the gift was going to be generous—and I had already dropped many hints about an imported Raleigh ten-speed bicycle. I noticed she did not direct our driver, Soma, as she usually did. He already knew the destination, which was certainly the Fort, where the cycle shops were.
That drive through Colombo comes back to me now, the image of my grandmother as she was then, chin jutted as if holding her own in an argument, back settled confidently into the base of her spine, hands clasped around a lace-edged handkerchief with which she would periodically dab her forehead and chin, releasing a swell of Yardley’s English Lavender perfume. She wore a butter-yellow cotton sari, its pleats starched to a knife edge, a string of pearls around her neck, forearms garrotted in gold bangles. Unlike most women in Sri Lanka, she did not carry a handbag but toted around a small purse woven out of coconut fronds. My grandmother was a woman who had others carry things for her.
I can picture myself, too, on that ride, thin arms and bony wrists brushed with newly sprouted fuzz, hair cut and styled in the latest feathered fashion,
dressed in imported jeans and red short-sleeved polo shirt, my neck straining forward, clavicles shimmering with the effort, nostrils daintily flared as if to some subtle danger, my long eyelashes casting a shadow over my high cheekbones—well aware of the advantages my beauty brought me with my grandmother.
As we went through the city that day, however, the car did not veer towards the Fort but instead took another route, and we were soon in the wealthy neighbourhood of Colombo 7. I turned to my grandmother, but she would not meet my gaze. After a few detours down elegantly treed streets, the car came to a stop in front of a large two-storey house, much grander than the one we lived in and set in a vast garden. “Come, Puthey,” my grandmother said, referring to me by the affectionate extension of
, “son,” that she always used with me.
I opened the door, but did not get out. She nudged me out, then led me up to the gate, her hand on my shoulder, and when we were before it, she waved at the house with its generous pillared verandah at the end of the long driveway. “This is yours, Puthey.”
She smiled at my astonishment. “When I die, this house and all my other properties will come to you.” She giggled, delighted to have caught me out in this way, but confident I would be pleased with the largesse of the inheritance she intended to give me. She told me that an American couple who worked in the embassy were renting it at a very high cost. “Of course, I’m no fool.” She tossed her head. “They don’t pay me in our useless rupees. That would be like pouring honey into a pot of feces,” she added, using one of those pithy sayings that enlivened the Sinhala language. “No, these suddhas pay their rent in dollars, into a secret account I have in England.” She squeezed my elbow, her breath like mildewed bread as she leaned in to me. “You must never tell anyone that, Puthey, not even your mother.”
My grandmother began to point out various features of the house, her tone suddenly businesslike, looking keenly at me to make sure I was paying attention. I nodded, but my mind was already in recoil.
I knew my grandmother owned numerous rental properties, as she was a woman of great restlessness, frequently going out to inspect her houses, get repairs done, evict tenants or see her lawyer about deeds and land transfers. But this was the first time I was seeing them. She was showing me the future mapped out for me.
Our next stop was her “Pettah property.” As we drove towards that older part of the city, I glanced occasionally at my grandmother, wanting to protest, to beg for release from this future. My apprehension only grew when we arrived.
The walls of this dilapidated row house were smudged with black and green fungus, its roof patched with rusted takaran where the red tiles had fallen off. The wooden verandah sagged, and its pillars were cracked and leaned precariously.
My grandmother strode up the front steps, across the creaking floor boards of the verandah and rapped on the front door.
A child called out from the other side, asking who it was. “Tell your mother the Ariyasinghe Nona is here,” my grandmother replied.
After a moment the child said, “Amma is not home.”
My grandmother made a contemptuous sound. “Of course she is. Where would she go, ah? Siriyawathy, let us in.”
Bolts grated back and the door opened. A woman stood before us, eyes bewildered. Strands of her uncombed hair had sprung into a halo about her face and the red flowers on her dress had bled into the white background. The child, peeking from behind his mother’s legs, was dressed only in a pair of shorts, belly distended from malnutrition.
“What is this, hiding-hiding from me, ah?” my grandmother said, grimly amused.
She pushed past the woman and led me down a narrow corridor, rooms on either side like dark groves on a forested path, paint peeling like bark, floors rutted with cracks. All the while, my grandmother complained about how much more money she could make if she rented this property as a chummery for factory girls, which she was thinking of doing. When we finally left, she called out, before shutting the door, “Siriyawathy, you can come out of hiding now,” then gave me another bemused smile.
As we went down the verandah steps, she took my arm for support. “That Siriyawathy must have done something very bad in her past life, Puthey. Otherwise, look at her, recently widowed with a small child to raise. It’s a terrible thing to be living out the effects of a bad karma, nah?” She sighed and shook her head. “But what is to be done? No one can escape their past actions, not even our Lord Buddha could.”
That day, my grandmother took me around all her properties in Colombo. There were fifteen, and they varied from the grand house in Colombo 7, to middle-class bungalows, to row houses that were barely more than slum dwellings.
When we finally arrived back at our house, I left the car, not holding the door open for my grandmother, and hurried up the front steps. I went to my room and sat on the bed, staring at my hands.
After a moment, my grandmother stood in the doorway, eyes wide with concern. “What is it, Puthey, are you unwell?”